Foege’s global work to eradicate smallpox earns him Presidential Medal of Freedom
William Foege is a giant.
It’s not his 6-foot-7 frame that earns him this distinction. Rather, it’s his role in stamping out smallpox and helping to set a global agenda for tackling the world’s worst health problem.
That much of it started in the small shops and schools of Colville makes his legacy especially rich for Eastern Washington.
On Tuesday, Foege, an epidemiologist, will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a White House ceremony recognizing the people who made important contributions to the arts, science, diplomacy and other pursuits. Recipients range from Bob Dylan to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Foege moved to Chewelah with his family in 1945 when his father, a Lutheran pastor, was appointed to minister in the small town north of Spokane.
Foege was a bright 9-year-old at the time.
The family ended up moving to Colville and Foege began to hone his intellect. He took to science while working at a pharmacy, talking about the world with adults who saw something special in young Foege and imparted their knowledge and experiences.
One taught him algebra. Others provided books.
“What happened in Colville was that some adults took an interest in a young person and helped that young mind explore new things,” said Mary Selecky, the Washington state secretary of health.
Also from the Colville area, Selecky has been friends with Foege for many years. She considers him one of the most influential and insightful public servants.
After graduating from high school in Colville, Foege earned a bachelor’s degree from Pacific Lutheran University and finished medical school at the University of Washington.
He worked at the Seattle-King County Health Department during medical school, and after graduation he joined the Epidemic Intelligence Service division of what is now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the early 1960s. After a brief stint in the Peace Corps in India, he earned a master’s degree in public health from Harvard in 1965.
By 1966 he was applying his medical skills and spiritual beliefs as a missionary doctor in Nigeria. This was when the United Nations decided to embark on an effort to eradicate smallpox. Though vaccines had been around for decades and the United States was free of smallpox, the disease continued to kill people in developing nations.
Foege is credited with developing a strategy of tracking and containing the disease. This would prove far more effective and realistic than what was being pondered as the surest way to wipe out smallpox: vaccinating most every person in the world at an enormous expense – most likely impossible.
Instead, Foege advocated vaccinating smaller groups of people – as few as 7 percent in some communities – and then tracking the population until the disease was removed.
The strategy worked as Foege became director of the CDC under President Jimmy Carter. He stayed at his post during the early years of the Reagan administration and led the public health agency as HIV/AIDS became a public health epidemic.
According to the White House, Foege has since helped shape the mission of global health through his work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
He recently moved from his home on Vashon Island in Washington to Atlanta, where he is on a global health advisory board at Emory University.
He is an author and keeps in touch with childhood friends in Colville.
Foege’s name graces a building housing the UW’s Department of Genome Sciences.
Others receiving a Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama are musician Dylan; diplomat Albright; astronaut John Glenn; Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens; retiring University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt; Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low; Israeli President Shimon Peres; John Doar, a leader in the U.S. Justice Department during the civil rights era; Gordon Hirabayashi, who battled against the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; Jan Karski, a Polish Underground officer who assisted the Allies and carried the first eyewitness accounts of the Nazi Holocaust; Dolores Huerta, an American labor leader and civil rights activist who, along with Cesar Chavez, co-founded what became the United Farm Workers; and novelist Toni Morrison.
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